Instant messaging has hit the mainstream of the Internet; it has become popular with Internet users all over the world. But does instant messaging have a place in your shop? Here are some products that may offer solutions in tech support, customer support, and intraoffice communications.

One of the first companies to offer instant messaging was ICQ , which was founded by an Israeli company and later bought by AOL. The regular Internet client is updated often, and the feature set now includes basic chat, file transfers, and even voice chat. Unfortunately, many new users find ICQ to be overwhelming.

Even in its simple mode, ICQ can confuse the new user because there are simply too many choices. If you only want your users to be able to communicate on an internal network, ICQ has a version for that function. This version hasn’t been updated since 1997, however, so it lacks some of the newer features you’d expect to see.

Additionally, users are identified by long identification numbers (for example, 58328734) rather than nicknames, which are more user-friendly.

  • Pros: Tons of features; the Internet version is regularly updated.
  • Cons: The number of options can overwhelm some users; the intranet version is rarely updated; long, impersonal identification numbers.

AOL Instant Messenger
AOL has been a huge player in the instant messaging wars. Independent of ICQ, AOL offers its own client, AOL Instant Messenger, which is available at AOL’s product excels in its simplicity, and it has the ability to interact directly with AOL’s Buddy List network. Unfortunately, it lacks features such as file transfers or voice chat. Additionally, it doesn’t have a version for use on intranets only.

  • Pros: Simple interface; interacts with AOL Buddy Lists
  • Cons: Lacks advanced features or intranet-only capability

MSN Messenger
In 1999, Microsoft threw its hat into the ring with the MSN Messenger service . MSN Messenger looks strikingly similar to the AOL Instant Messenger, and its interface is easy to use. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, it lacks the ability to interact with the AOL network (which has been the subject of lively debate). It is an extremely small download (approx. 342 K), and it has great Hotmail integration. Unfortunately, like AOL, MSN Messenger lacks intranet-only capability, and it doesn’t support file transfer and other features that ICQ offers. Plus, it requires a Hotmail or other MSN passport-compatible account.

  • Pros: Easy to use; good Hotmail integration.
  • Cons: Lacks advanced features or intranet-only capability.

A company called Tribal Voice Software runs a service called PowWow . Although PowWow has been around for almost as long as the other products I’ve mentioned (and longer than others), it hasn’t had much acclaim because older versions of the software were bulky and buggy. Plus, PowWow has a considerably smaller user base than its competition. Nevertheless, the product has a nice, intuitive interface, and provides most of the features that ICQ does—file transfer and voice chat, and many more. In addition, it is interoperable with AOL’s network. PowWow has promised an intranet-only client, but unfortunately the release of this function has been “delayed.”

  • Pros: Good feature set; simple interface; interoperable with AOL network.
  • Cons: Small user base

Lotus SameTime
Of the products I have mentioned here, Lotus SameTime is the only one that actually costs money. In addition, SameTime is the best product for use in a private intranet, probably because it is targeted primarily for businesses rather than the general public.

SameTime provides interoperability with AOL Instant Messenger and has most of the features offered by ICQ. Of course, it also works well with Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino.

  • Pros: Specifically made for private intranet; loads of features; interoperable with AOL network.
  • Cons: Expensive; suggested retail price is $6,028 for the server

If you’ve used any of these products and would like to share your experiences, please post a comment below or follow this link to send us a note.

Kyle Harmon is the owner of